The Funeral Service and Services for the Departed
The loss of a loved one is always difficult. When a loved one passes there often many questions which arise about how to proceed with the funeral service. The Church is here to assist, offer comfort and to guide you in this process. We hope that this information will be a helpful resource. Below you will find a guide for the funeral service and traditions surrounding the death of a loved one. Please also contact our clergy for further guidance. In the event of the loss of a loved one, the funeral service director and the church will work together to schedule the funeral and services.
For here we have no lasting city, but we seek that city which is to come. – The Letter to the Hebrews 12:13
Death is something that awaits all of us and our loved ones. Yet we often wish to avoid thinking about it. As Orthodox Christians, we know that “Christ is risen from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20) and understand earthly death both as an encounter with the Risen Christ and the door to what the Lord Jesus calls “eternal life” (John 3:16). In this sense, for believers, death is not the end but a new beginning. Christians, as St. Paul writes, “do not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
OUR BELIEF ABOUT DEATH
Although death is often an uncomfortable topic in our culture, it is a reality we will all face. As Orthodox Christians we understand death through the lens of Christ's glorious resurrection. Through His sacrifice on the Cross, three-day burial in the tomb, and resurrection He conquered death. When we affirm that Christ conquered death we mean that Christ showed us a way of life apart from sin which leads to death. In doing so, Christ showed us, His creation, how to return to the life and purpose for which we were created.
HOW WE PREPARE FOR DEATH
The Orthodox Church does not have a practice of Last Rites. Instead, we prepare every day through the life of our Faith by participating in sacraments and services, following the teachings of Christ and His Church, and repenting. When one approaches death the Church can respond in numerous ways based on the needs of that person: communion may be offered, confessions can be heard, and prayers can be offered in preparation. Finally, when one does pass a priest will offer the prayers for the separation of the body. It is important to maintain contact and a relationship with your clergy so that they can offer care as it is needed.
HOW WE RESPOND TO DEATH
The loss of a loved one can bring about a wave of emotions, feelings, and concerns. The pain, frustration and sorrow we experience is a natural response to death. We were not created to die; rather, death and sin were introduced into Creation in the Garden when Adam and Eve betrayed God's commandment. However, because we have faith and hope in Christ we cannot allow this pain and sorrow to become rooted in our hearts. As Orthodox Christians we understand that death is not a severing of a relationship, but an event which transforms or changes our relationship with those who have departed. While we may not continue to experience life with them from day-to-day there is a constant from our life with them--prayer. As we prayed for them in life, we continue to pray for them in death. In doing so, we ask that God grant peace and rest to His departed servant where there is no pain, sorrow or sighing, but life everlasting.
The Funeral service, traditions and related issues
Eligibility for an Orthodox Funeral
Any parishioner in good standing with the Orthodox Church is entitled to a funeral service. Orthodox Christians who have expressed in their wills the desire to be cremated may not have a funeral in the Church.
Preparation for the Funeral
Choose the mortuary you will be using and contact them. Taxiarchae Church can recommend a mortuary, if needed. Our tradition as Orthodox Christians is to bury the dead. The body of the deceased is respectfully placed in a casket and set in a grave. The body of the deceased, which St. Paul describes as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), is returned to the earth from which it was taken (Genesis 2:7). For an Orthodox Funeral Service to be held, cremation is not an option.
Choose the cemetery where your loved one will be buried and contact them to make the necessary arrangements: the choosing and purchasing of a burial plot, headstone, etc.
Bring a set of clothes (suit/dress) for your loved one to the mortuary to provide the necessary clothing for them to be buried in. (Sometimes a recent photo of the deceased will be requested by the mortuary to be used in their preparation of the body for the funeral.)
Choose a casket. Our tradition as Orthodox Christians is that the casket normally be open during services at the mortuary and the Church. The casket is closed for the graveside Trisagion.
If you so decide, choose icon memorial cards and a guest book for those attending services. These can be provided by the mortuary.
The mortuary will ask about obituary notices both in print and online.
The mortuary will ask about the number of death certificates that need to be ordered from the State for legal and financial purposes such as insurance policies, veterans and social security benefits, etc. Normally, 5-10 death certificates will be needed.
Choose pallbearers. Six are needed.
Choose a florist. (In times past, thousands of dollars might be spent on flowers for a funeral. As Orthodox Christians, we believe it is far more consistent with our values to choose a charity for memorial donations to be made. Many people choose Taxiarchae Church and/or other Orthodox charities – such as Project Mexico and IOCC – to receive memorial donations.)
The Trisagion (Thrice-Holy) Service
After a person dies, notify the priest immediately. The Trisagion following a death takes place the night before the funeral at the wake. The prayers intreat God to grant rest to the departed souls and that it may receive mercy. The title "Trisagion" comes from the repetition three times of the opening phrase of the service, "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us." The Trisagion service (Memorial Service) may be repeated for a loved one in church or at the grave throughout the first year: usually at the fortieth day and one year.
The Funeral Service
A Christian funeral places a person’s entire life and even death in the context of our faith in the Crucified and Risen Christ. It also enables family and friends to gather together to begin the process of accepting the painful reality of death and express their love, grief and support for one another.
The Orthodox funeral service emphasizes the reality of death and the new life of the deceased. It is a positive service featuring prayers for forgiveness and repose of the departed's soul. Priests wear white to symbolize the joy of the resurrection. Funerals take place within the Church and are only allowed at a cemetary or mortuary chapel with special permission.
The deceased and the family arrive at the church where the priest begins the service by meeting the family, friends, and casket at the front door of the church. Chanting, he leads them into the sanctuary for the service. Guests waiting outside enter the church and sign a guest book in the narthex. The family sits in the front row before the icon of Christ in the iconostasion.
The open casket is arranged so that the departed faces east towards the altar, the direction for Christ will rise again. The priest leads the bereaved in hymns, scripture, readings and prayers, asking God to give rest to the departed soul and forgive all sins. The priest then invites the visitors to "Come and kiss (pay respects) the one that was with us a short time ago."
To conclude, the priest pours oil and dirt on the body in the form of a cross, saying, "Wash me with hyssop and I shall be pure, cleanse me and I shall be whiter than snow." The casket is then closed and the service conclueds. The priest then processes with the casket out of the church
The funeral home transports the deceased and the immediate family to the cemetery. The priest again says the Trisagion service for the last time. Family members may stay and witness the lowering of the casket if they desire.
Makaria (Mercy Meal)
Mourners often share a meal called a "Makaria" following the funeral. It provides an opportunity for the relatives and friends to refresh themselves and remember their loved one in an informal setting. Our tradition as Orthodox Christians is for the main dish at the Makaria to be some kind of plaki (broiled fish). This is because the first meal that the Lord Jesus ate with His disciples following His resurrection from the dead consisted of broiled fish and bread, as recorded in the Gospel of John 21:12-13. This meal is a reminder of Christ’s resurrection and His closeness to those who believe in Him. It is not appropriate to serve meat at a Makaria.
Following the graveside service, it is customary to invite everyone to a meal called, in Greek, the Makaria.
Questions to be asked about the Makaria:
- Where will it be held?
- Will it be held at the parish hall, a restaurant, or someone’s home?
- Will a caterer be used?
The boiled wheat, known as kollyva, is a symbol of the Resurrection. When speaking of the Resurrection, our Lord said: "Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).
Prayer for the dead is not seen by Orthodox Christians as an optional extra. It is an essential component of our faith in Jesus Christ. Praying for those who have died is not merely an expression of mourning – it is a proclamation that Christ has risen from the dead and that, in His love, even death cannot separate us from one another! Forty days after the death of a loved one (or on the nearest Sunday to the 40 days), it is the custom of our Church to celebrate a prayer service in remembrance of the deceased known in English as a Memorial Service. In this service, which at Taxiarcahe normally takes place on Sundays at the end of conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, and we ask God to “grant rest” to the deceased “in the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22-23) and to place him/her “in a place of light, a place of happiness, a place of refreshment, where there is no pain, no sorrow and no suffering” (Revelation 21:4) as we did during the funeral service.
A tray of boiled wheat, raisins and powdered sugar called “kolyva” in Greek is prepared for the service and is later, at the parish coffee hour, distributed to the community. This practice is based on the words of the Lord Jesus used to describe His own death and resurrection, “Amen, I say to you: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain of wheat. But if it dies, it brings forth a good harvest” (John 12:24). The tray of kolyva is a symbol of our faith in the life giving death and resurrection of Christ.
If you do not know how to prepare a tray of kolyva, please contact our church office.
In addition to the 40 day Memorial Service, Memorial Services are normally held annually on or near the anniversary of the loved one’s death. The parish office must be informed of the family’s intention to offer a Memorial Service at least two weeks prior to the desired date. Please note that, in keeping with the ancient way in which we conduct our worship, Memorial Services may not be prayed from Lazarus Saturday through Holy Week, Pascha and the Sunday of St. Thomas; nor on the major festal celebrations of our Church (for example, December 25th, Christmas; January 6th, Epiphany; February 2nd, the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple; August 6th, the Transfiguration of our Lord; August 15th, the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos; September 14th, the Exaltation of the Cross; etc.).
Everyone is also encouraged to remember their departed loved ones annually on the Saturdays of Souls associated with Great Lent and the celebration of Pentecost.